Looking Back at the March Forward

I’ve begun reading John Behr’s (so far) two volume series (three are reported as planned) subtitled Formation of Christian Theology. The first volume, in soft cover from SVS Press, is entitled The Way to Nicaea. This books covers aspects of the formation of Christian theology, focusing on the development of the answer to Jesus query to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Volume 2 is split into two books and covers in some detail the controversies surrounding the two councils which developed the Nicene creed.

The first chapter of this book begins with a look at how the Scriptural canon for the Christian church developed and was set. There were a lot of alternative canonical choices at the end of the second century when the canon was set. But the result, to summarize Behr, was that two key criteria were used to select what books and epistles were included in the New Testament canon. They are that the books chosen were “according the the Scriptures” and that the cross (the passion) was central. The phrase “according the the Scriptures” meant specifically that the acts and narrative account in the selected book connected these actions with the accounts and prophecies of the Old Testament. This meant that books like the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic works were excluded. Behr defends his interpretation of this development of canon by examining the methods and arguments used by St. Irenaeus in discussing various heresies of his day at the close of the 2nd century.

David Schraub blogging at the Debate Link, dislikes the term “Judeo-Christian”. This term admittedly can be misused. The above historical notes demonstrate how this term is at the same time correct and how the traditions diverged. For certainly in the context of investigating first and second century theological currents and ideas that term is relevant. Throughout the first century the majority of Christians were Jews who felt that Jesus was in fact the awaited Messianic figure, the fulfillment of Scriptural promise. At the same time, there is here a key difference which will form the basis possibly for the contention that this term does not make sense. Christians over the centuries following embarked on a program to reinterpret the Jewish Scriptural canon through the “lens of the cross”, i.e., via the life and passion of Jesus. That is they re-examined and reinterpreted, often as “type”, events and prophecies of Scripture to be interpreted specifically in the context of Jesus message, and his crucifixion and resurrection. Christian theology at the end of the second century defined itself and its theological methods in the light of Jewish writing. At the same time however, it was beginning to highlight the differences by beginning a program of returning to and examining that same canon in a radically different way (although it might be noted that “different” way was himself a 1st century Jew).

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  1. Dislikes is awfully generous. But I think you’re right that the term carries some validity in terms of historical inquiry of early Christianity when the line between it and Judaism was still quite blurred — though in contemporary political contexts it is rarely deployed that way. As Christian writers began to break more decisively with Judaism (and, it should be said, Jewish theology also continued to develop in its own directions), the term makes less and less sense. But certainly we can speak more intelligibly of “Judeo-Christian” practices in the very early days of Christianity, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.